We spoke with the CEOs of companies that participated in the recent AWS Startup Showcase: Innovations With CloudData and CloudOps to find out what drives them and learn about their visions for the future. This is the eighth feature in our CEO Startup Spotlight series.
AutoGrid Systems Inc. founder and Chief Executive Officer Amit Narayan (pictured), started becoming very interested in climate change in 2010. He was the director of Smart Grid Research in Modeling and Simulation at Stanford University from 2010 to 2012, where he led an interdisciplinary project related to modeling, optimization and control of the electricity grid and associated electricity markets. His work there led to the start of AutoGrid in 2011, and he’s been at the helm ever since.
While increased agility, greater business value, real-time actionable insights and lower costs are some of the more common benefits associated with cloud computing, AutoGrid is using the cloud to solve the world’s most critical energy problems.
“Undoubtedly, climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time, and we’re seeing extreme weather events, whether it’s wildfires in California or extreme cold in Texas,” said Narayan during an interview with Dave Vallente, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio. “As we tackle climate change, this whole volatility challenge is only going to become even more pressing.”
Rethinking the energy grid architecture
Energy pioneers Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla never envisioned that the one directional energy grid they designed would ever need to accommodate a two-way flow of power; not just from generators to consumers, but potentially from consumers back to the generators. Nor did they design a grid that could incorporate a vast amount of renewables, which can be intermittent and volatile, according to Narayan.
“As we transition to this new energy world, we have to rethink the entire grid architecture and reinvent how the control system works,” Narayan told theCUBE during a phone interview. “Fortunately for us, unlike Edison and Tesla, we have some really powerful tools at our disposal, namely the internet and the cloud, and these tools allow us to rethink how we connect all the different assets and how we optimize them. In a way, we’re rebuilding the grid outside-in, where if you have a battery in your home, not only can it power your own home when the power is out, it can actually provide power back to the grid or to your neighbors. These are very exciting times, and I feel that AutoGrid can play a foundational role in accelerating the transition to a sustainable grid.”
Working with Amazon Web Services Inc., the company was able to start out with massive scale cloud computing. Combined with cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as dispatch, command and control technologies, all in one platform, it had the ability to manage and orchestrate very monolithic distributed energy resources. The sheer number of networked distributed energy resources, or DERs, required a new paradigm.
Virtual power plants
AutoGrid’s AI-powered suite of solutions allows utilities, electricity retailers, renewable energy project developers and energy service providers to deliver cheap, clean and reliable energy by managing DERs in real time and at scale. The platform leverages petabytes of smart meter, sensor and third-party data, along with data science, AI, network optimization and high-performance computing to monitor, predict, optimize and control the operations of millions of assets connected across global energy networks.
The company calls this the science of flexibility management, an approach that enables energy providers to mine the Energy Internet’s rich data load to extract flexible capacity from distributed energy resources. The Energy Internet is defined as a power system that integrates different types of energy resources, storage and loads and enables peer-to-peer energy delivery on a large scale. In turn, flexible capacity can be used to balance energy supply and demand in real time, increase the productivity and value of energy assets, and deliver new energy services to customers.
“You can think of us as an autopilot for the grid or a virtual power plant that allows us to harness power from a plethora of distributed energy resources,” Narayan explained.
Virtual power plants, or distributed energy systems, have the potential to change the energy horizon by taking locally produced solar power and redistributing it to where it is most needed, all facilitated by cloud-based software that has a full panoramic view.
More than 50 global energy companies, including CLP Holdings, National Grid, Shell, Total Energies, Schneider Electric, National Grid, SunRun and CPS Energy, are working with AutoGrid, and through them, the company manages about five gigawatts of assets across four continents and 12 countries.
The company attributes its 10-year relationship with AWS as the key to ramping up the solution very quickly, as well as the sheer amount of compute scale that is available on tap if needed. The amount of processing required for real-time computing with enormous amounts of data from multiple distributed energy resources in geographies around the world is daunting, yet it’s possible because AWS has a global presence.
The need to simplify an extremely complex energy ecosystem
Most companies in this sector have focused on a very specific area with a particular technology or asset, such as batteries or solar power. AutoGrid has a unique approach here.
“We didn’t set out to address optimization of one specific class of assets, but we asked, how do we look at the entire system end to end and find out how the system can be managed effectively, irrespective of what type of generation or load assets are connected to it,” Narayan explained.
When first starting to pioneer and evangelize this approach, the company found it a challenge to convince others that an open, extensive ecosystem would be useful. Today, Narayan believes that AutoGrid is providing great value, particularly as more assets connect to its networked system. With more assets, the platform can continue to better balance demand and supply — one of the foundational problems when deploying renewables.
“Sun doesn’t shine at night, and wind doesn’t blow all the time, so it’s still relatively expensive, although costs are coming down,” he said. “You have to be intelligent in terms of making the electricity supply chain a just-in-time process without creating a huge cost burden.”
One of the challenges the company faces is that the energy ecosystem is extremely complex. Regulations are a hurdle, although Narayan said those are increasingly being removed and many stakeholders are involved, including utilities, energy companies who do project development or financing, OEMs who make hardware such as solar panels or UV chargers, and even cars, all the way to the end customer.
“For the system to work, all parties need to participate with each other; data and transactions have to flow between different entities,” Narayan explained. “The big issue for us and for everybody in this ecosystem is to simplify the landscape and make it easier for the data to flow between parties and facilitate the transactions that need to happen.”
To address this, AutoGrid’s goal is to remove the complexity from the system and become the one-stop shop for new energy assets to join its platform and be monetized.
Narayan’s perspective is hopeful, yet sobering.
“I think we are the first generation to fully recognize this challenge, and at the same time we are also probably the last generation that has the opportunity to do something about it and turn things around. That makes this a unique phase in human history as we embark on the journey to accelerate a sustainable energy system. This is going to be the biggest transformation in our lifetime, and the next 10 years are extremely critical,” he concluded.
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